Remembering Gary Tobin

The Jewish community lost one of its most vocal and spirited advocates today with the passing of Dr. Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

His work as a demographer often challenged conventional Jewish thinking, forcing the community to turn a critical eye towards itself when thinking about the Jewish future. Gary was a firm believer in reaching out to all those on the periphery and he often took unpopular or controversial positions, like promoting proactive conversion as a means to grow the Jewish community. Highly critical of the National Jewish Population Survey, he also believed the Jewish community was bigger than we thought, and he wanted to make sure all who aligned themselves with the Jewish people – particularly those with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds – were counted.

In partnership with Be’Chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”), an advocacy organization directed by his wife Diane, and through books and opinion pieces, Gary advanced the work and ideas of all those who seek a truly welcoming Jewish community. He once wrote that “the Jewish community should promote the joys, meaning and benefits of Jewish life. We should overcome being afraid of who will be lost to Judaism and instead work on who will join us.”

In those two lines, he summarized beautifully what we – and all others who advocate for a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community – believe is the best way to secure a vibrant Jewish future. Gary was an optimist, and we are certain his work, words and legacy will be felt in the Jewish community for years to come.


  1. Beautiful. Condolences to his family.

    It’s good to know there are active members of the Jewish community who care enough about Jewish continuity to embrace diversity and to welcome and assist interfaith families. To refuse to bring people in who want to be involved, is, in a very strange way, ultimately anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic.

    Comment by Sara — July 7, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

  2. JTA posted the full obituary here:

    I only met him a couple of times but he was extremely kind to me and the work he did was essential. I highly recommend his book “Opening the Gates.”

    Comment by Paul Golin — July 7, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  3. Thanks, Paul. Good.

    My sisters, niece, niece’s child, cousin’s child, my own children, and many of my friends are Jewish according to Jewish law, but culturally secular Christian or secular humanist. In terms of perspective on the culture, it is painfully vivid how little we have in common with cultural Jews (aside from the survival anxiety, which is a pretty crummy take-away.)

    I hope “the Jewish community” appreciates how difficult it is to deconstruct a culturally foreign identity and rebuild it as a Jewish identity. It can be frightening to re-evaluate or jettison basic assumptions. It takes commitment, courage, and determination. I would hope Jews would take this willingness as a compliment. It is no easy task to put oneself through a wholesale personal transformation. That should tell you something about the power and beauty of Judaism. I have a great deal of respect for people who choose to make the transition easier - for “returnees” or for converts.

    Comment by Sara — July 7, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  4. My cousin’s daughter is half Haitian, half Ashkenazi Jew. My niece is half-Saudi, half-Jewish. Her child is half Puerto Rican. All are Jewish according to the matrilineal descent rule. So, this is not theoretical - this is my family.

    Good article.

    Comment by Sara — July 7, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

  5. And all are welcome, as far as Gary, of blessed memory, and I am concerned.

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — July 7, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

  6. i was very sad to hear about Professor Tobin’s passing. i read his book Rabbis Talk About Intermarriage a few years ago and it was one of the most profound accounts ever, dealing with the internal strife Rabbis often face when it comes to deciding whether or not to officiate at an interfaith wedding. i agreed with Tobin’s approach that conversion should be more proactive. if we keep waiting for people to come to us, then we’ll never get ahead in life.

    Comment by h. — July 8, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

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